Rex Tillerson sets collision course on South China Sea

The Guardian

Fri, Jan 13, 2017 - Page 1

Rex Tillerson, who has been nominated as US secretary of state, has set the stage for a potential clash with China, saying it should be barred from artificial islands it has built in the South China Sea.

China’s control and construction of artificial islands in waters also claimed by Taiwan was “akin to Russia’s taking of Crimea,” Tillerson said.

China claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea and has built seven artificial islands on reefs and rocks, outfitting them with military-length airstrips and anti-aircraft guns.

“We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed,” Tillerson said during his confirmation hearing to become the US’ top diplomat. “They are taking territory or control, or declaring control of territories that are not rightfully China’s.”

The statements are sure to worry China, which has taken a rigid stance on challenges to its sovereignty claims.

Last year, an international tribunal ruled that much of China’s territorial claims were invalid, but it had little effect as Beijing ignored the verdict.

“[Chinese President] Xi Jinping (習近平) will not be seen as weak and soft in the face of pressure from the United States, so I really do worry about an early crisis with China,” said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “China is not going to allow the United States to deny it access to what it sees as its own territory.”

Nevertheless, in its first response to Tillerson’s comments, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs stressed the importance of mutual respect and cooperation with the US.

US-China relations are based on nonconfrontation, “mutual benefit and win-win cooperation,” ministry spokesman Lu Kang (陸慷) said at a daily briefing.

“[The] situation has cooled down [in the South China Sea], and we hope non-regional countries can respect this consensus that is in the fundamental interest of the whole world,” Lu said.

His comments presented China’s control over the area as a forgone conclusion and it would be difficult for the US to change the facts on the ground without a military confrontation.

Experts say China is waiting until US president-elect Donald Trump assumes the presidency and begins shaping policy before reacting too forcefully.

“China has been restrained in the face of all the tweets and rhetoric, because they hope they can put the US-China relationship on an even keel,” Glaser said. “The Chinese have not given up on that, but at some point Xi Jinping may have to, because being seen as weak would damage his ability to consolidate power.”

This year is crucial for Xi as his first term winds down. A Chinese Communist Party meeting at the end of the year is to involve a Cabinet shuffle and will likely determine who succeeds Xi, with leaders locked in a power struggle to appoint their allies.

While Tillerson did not elaborate on how the US would bar China from islands in the South China Sea, experts agreed it would have to involve some form of military deployment.